A shoeshine boy takes the shoes off a Malaysian tourist's foot in Ho Chi Minh City. The city has pledged to increase patrols to prevent increasing incidents of foreigners getting robbed or hassled by vendors.
Police cars or jeeps slowly cruising the streets and plainclothes cops mingling among the crowds could become a regular feature of life in Ho Chi Minh City soon as local authorities move to improve its safety image and protect tourists from theft and other crime.
With the recession biting deeper in main tourism source countries like the UK, France and Germany, and the increase in the number of visitors likely to come down next year, HCMC authorities are planning to improve the city’s image by protecting its tourists better.
They will enforce patrols on the streets and at popular tourism sites and are also thinking of setting up a tourism police force.
HCMC People’s Committee – the municipal administration – has instructed the police department to dispatch more plainclothes cops from the crime branch to streets in downtown areas during peak tourist season.
In October, it had instructed the police department to prepare a plan to set up a tourism police force.
While the plan takes shape, the HCMC Police Department has assigned officials from the mobile police division to patrol downtown streets. In Vietnam, the mobile police division is a permanent taskforce that can be assigned to work independently or cooperate with other divisions against a wide range of crimes, from causing public disturbances to terrorism.
Volunteer youths and militiamen have also been dispatched to assist tourists and tackle criminals targeting them.
Although there is still one week to the end of this year, HCMC has already surpassed its 2011 target of attracting 3.5 million foreign visitors. There has been a 12.9 percent increase in foreign visitors over last year. Nationwide, the figure is around six million international visitors, exceeding this year’s target of between 5.3 million and 5.5 million.
However, according to deputy director of HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism La Quoc Khanh, the city is expected to welcome around 3.78 million foreign visitors in 2012, equal to an eight percent increase over this year.
Khanh said among the challenges facing the city’s tourism sector is the economic slowdown in American and European countries. Many citizens of these countries could choose to travel over shorter distances to other countries instead of Vietnam, which is far away.
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“While tourists are trying to cut expenses, an increase in air fares and relevant service fees would make them think twice before buying a ticket to HCMC,” he said.
Last week, the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism met with the municipal administration and relevant agencies to tackle robberies as well as the hassling by vendors who target foreign tourists.
According to HCMC Police Department, there have been 42 cases of robberies targeting foreign tourists so far this year in the downtown area including districts 1, 3 and 5.
Police said most cases involved backpackers or tourists traveling individually and not in tours.
Nguyen Hong Linh, deputy director of HCMC Department of Foreign Affairs said almost every year his agency has received diplomatic notes from foreign consular offices notifying cases of foreign tourists being robbed.
He told the HCMC-based Phu Nu (Women) newspaper his agency recently received a note from the Australian Consulate General’s office about some Australian tourists being scammed by a taxi driver in front of District 1’s Ben Thanh Market.
On December 16, a robber on a motorbike snatched an iPhone from Kim Seonal - a South Korean tourist - when she was taking a photo of her boyfriend on District 1’s Le Loi Street.
Two militiamen and a District 3 police official who was passing by gave chase and managed to arrest the robber, Nguyen Chi Hung, 21, of Phu Nhuan District, soon after.
On the same day, a Japanese tourist was robbed of her iPhone when walking outside the Ben Thanh Market.
Ngo Trung Hieu of the HCMC Youth Volunteer Brigade was on duty at the site. He and two of his colleagues chased after the robber and arrested him with assistance of some local residents.
On December 1, Peter Ellott Wilk from the US was robbed on Tan Binh District’s Bau Cat Street. He said the bag had 2,000 Chinese yuan, VND15 million and his identity papers.
Local residents managed to catch the robber, Nguyen Thanh Tuan, 21, and handed him over to the local police.
But other foreign tourists have not been so lucky.
Last month, Lee Kit Man, a Chinese tourist was waiting for taxi in front of a hotel on District 11’s Ton That Hiep Street when a man on a motorbike snatched her bag and sped away. She said she lost nearly VND4 million, US$300, 1,200 Hong Kong dollars, a camera, cell phone and her identity papers.
Earlier, Arai Kikoshi, a tourist from Japan, was walking on Thu Khoa Huan Street when two robbers on motorbike snatched his bag with a laptop, an electronic dictionary, a camera, a cell phone and more than VND4 million.
Le Ba Can, chief of the Party unit in District 1, said local wards had to ask for support from other wards whenever they learnt there was a large group of tourists coming.
“There should be more police, voluntary youth to join patrols, guide foreign tourists and maintain security,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lang Nguyen Thanh Vu, director of HCMC Voluntary Youth Public Benefit Service Company, said they have only 243 employees dispatched to assist tourists around the city, mostly in districts 1 and 3.
“Our employees are limited in numbers and can only be present at some tourist destinations,” he said.
To overcome the personnel shortage, several tourism agencies have urged the city hall to set up a tourism police force in HCMC, which receives nearly 60 percent of the whole country’s international visitors.
Le Bach Khoa, vice director of Viet Premier Tours in HCMC, said many foreign tourists have been victims of robbers and swindlers and he is afraid that it would affect the city’s image.
“Tour guides often warn tourists to carefully protect their belongings at all times during their journey. However, this is an inconvenience. It would be better to have tourism police maintain security for them,” he said.
Meanwhile, a Bruneian expat who visits HCMC almost every month for her marketing business said she has heard about bag snatching in the city many times, but she does not consider it remarkable.
“They should be cautious and keep their belongings safe when traveling anywhere in the world, not only Ho Chi Minh City,” she said, adding that HCMC is safer than many other Asian countries that she often visits.